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Bledsoe v. Vanderbilt

United States Court of Appeals, Tenth Circuit

August 16, 2019

FLOYD S. BLEDSOE, Plaintiff - Appellee,
v.
JIM VANDERBILT, Defendant-Appellant, and JEFFERSON COUNTY, KANSAS; RANDY CARRENO; TROY FROST; ORIN TURNER; ROBERT POPPA; ROY DUNNAWAY; GEORGE JOHNSON; JIM WOODS; TERRY MORGAN; MICHAEL HAYES; JEFFREY HERRIG; UNKNOWN OFFICERS OF THE JEFFERSON COUNTY POLICE DEPARTMENT; UNKNOWN OFFICERS OF THE KANSAS BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION, Defendants.

          Appeal from the United States District Court for the District of Kansas (D.C. No. 2:16-CV-02296-DDC-GLR)

          Patric S. Linden (Kevin D. Case with him on the briefs), Case Linden P.C., Kansas City, Missouri, for Defendant-Appellant.

          Russell Ainsworth (Elizabeth Wang on the brief), Loevy & Loevy, Boulder, Colorado, for Plaintiff-Appellee.

          Before McHUGH, MURPHY, and CARSON, Circuit Judges.

          CARSON, CIRCUIT JUDGE.

         We consider whether a prosecutor enjoys absolute immunity from suit for fabricating evidence against an individual during the preliminary investigation of a crime. Because Supreme Court precedent dictates that he does not, Buckley v. Fitzsimmons (Buckley I), 509 U.S. 259, 261, 272-76 (1993), we affirm the district court's order denying the prosecutor absolute immunity.

         I.

         The circumstances that give rise to the case before us stem from Plaintiff Floyd S. Bledsoe's allegedly wrongful conviction for the 1999 rape and murder of fourteen-year-old C.A.[1]

         Our story starts on a Friday afternoon in early November after C.A. arrived home from school. At the time, "home" for C.A. meant the house belonging to Plaintiff, then twenty-three years old, and his wife Heidi, who was C.A.'s older sister. C.A. was staying with the couple and their two young sons in an effort to improve her attendance at school.

         Around 5:00 p.m., one of C.A.'s friends dropped by the house to visit her. But although C.A.'s coat and book bag were there, C.A. was not. After learning C.A. was gone, Plaintiff and Heidi reported her disappearance to the Jefferson County, Kansas Sheriff's Department. The couple then spent the next forty-eight hours or so looking for the missing girl.

         A breakthrough came on Sunday evening when Tom Bledsoe, Plaintiff's older brother, confessed that he had killed C.A.

         Tom was somewhat of an outsider. Although older than Plaintiff, he had been living with his and Plaintiff's parents, whose residence was near Plaintiff and Heidi's house, at the time of C.A.'s disappearance. He apparently had a limited social life, had some unspecified intellectual limitations, and was partially deaf. He also had engaged in some alarming behavior in the past, including pursuing young girls. And even though he was twenty-five years old at the time of the events in question, Tom remained an active member and participant in his church's Sunday School program for children.

         Fittingly enough, Tom first confessed that Sunday evening to his Sunday School teacher. He left two messages on the teacher's answering machine stating things like, "I know where C.A. is," "I'm going to turn myself in to the police," and "I will pay for the rest of my life." He also called his parents, confessed to killing C.A., and informed them he was going to turn himself into the police.

         Tom's parents hired an attorney to represent him.[2] The two met at the Jefferson County Sheriff's Department that same Sunday evening and described Tom's involvement in C.A.'s disappearance and death to multiple police officers.[3] In short, the two men informed officers that Tom had shot C.A. in the back of the head and buried her in a trash dump on the property where Tom lived with his parents.

         Tom led the officers to C.A.'s body, which had been buried under a large amount of dirt and plywood. C.A. had been shot once in the back of the head and several times in the torso. The coroner later found semen in her vagina but could not say whether she had been forcibly raped. Near her body, investigators found three bullet casings, a pornographic video, and a t-shirt printed with the name of the church Tom attended. Tom's attorney also surrendered a Jennings nine-millimeter handgun-the professed murder weapon-to the authorities. Authorities soon charged Tom with the first-degree murder of C.A.

         According to Plaintiff's allegations, the tide changed rather quickly. Within several days-and despite the mountain of evidence against Tom and the pending charges against him-authorities switched course and decided to pin C.A.'s death on Plaintiff instead.

         The alleged scheme to frame Plaintiff for the crime fully ripened at a meeting between various people who, for one reason or another, had united against him. Although Plaintiff's complaint does not state with certainty who attended this meeting, the participants included Defendant Jim Vanderbilt, the then-prosecutor of Jefferson County; Tom's attorney; and other unknown and unspecified individuals. The participants hatched the following plan: First, Tom would recant his confession. Second, Tom would claim he had encountered Plaintiff at a roadside intersection the day after C.A.'s disappearance and that, during the encounter, Plaintiff had spontaneously admitted to killing the girl. Third and finally, Tom would maintain that Plaintiff had bullied him into taking the fall for the crime by threatening to expose that Tom had watched pornographic videos, masturbated, and tried to have sexual intercourse with a dog.

         After the schemers had coached Tom to go along with this fabricated narrative, both Plaintiff and Tom took polygraph tests. Plaintiff, as expected, disavowed any involvement with C.A.'s disappearance or death. But Tom provided the false recantation and implicated Plaintiff as the perpetrator.[4]

         Immediately after the polygraph examination ended, Tom tried to retract his recantation and reaffirm to the schemers that he was the one with blood on his hands. But the confederates convinced him to stay the course. That same evening, Defendant Vanderbilt released Tom from jail and dropped the ...


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